Amma Bonsu, catalyst-storyteller-powerhouse

“There’s no reason not to be the fullness, the wholeness, the completeness of what you were born to be. There’s nothing stopping you in this country.”

Bright, strong, powerful, optimistic, joyful, exuberant, proud.

These qualities jumped out at me when I first saw a photograph of Amma Bonsu in Queen’s University’s Alumni Review. I was flipping through my alma mater’s publication, idly hoping to find someone I could feature on this website. All it took was a few sentences of Amma’s story for me to know I’d found an incredible candidate.

In the Review article, Amma describes a trip she took to her native Africa, where she spent December 2010 through February 2011 interviewing people “whose inspiring stories of resilience and success would debunk at least some popular misconceptions about this vibrant continent.” I did a little more digging into Amma, and very quickly discovered what a truly extraordinary person she is, over and above her recent “African odyssey.”

The Queen’s graduate, and Canadian citizen as of 2007, has her hand in a number of humanitarian initiatives—a practice she began in her youth and has every intention of maintaining. At the moment, Amma co-runs Foundation for Growth, a not-for-profit organization that raises funds to provide educational supplies and renovations to schools in Ghana, where she grew up. Amma also writes and produces AmmazingSeries™, a website she created that features weekly webisodes and articles on “social trends, social issues, amazing people and amazing stories.” She does all of this around her full-time job as a Commercial Accounts Manager at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in Toronto, Ontario, and her responsibilities to Yvonne, the teenage cousin she adopted from Ghana two years ago.

Amma’s efforts, which have already earned her the 2010 Queen’s University Alumni Association (QUAA) Alumni Humanitarian Award, go a long way toward improving the lives of countless people around the world. She says that one of the driving forces behind her endeavours is a strong desire to hear and share others’ stories. Fortunately for us, she agreed to let me share her story here.

Lessons learned

Amma was born and raised in Kumasi, the capital city of Ghana’s Ashanti region. She attributes her propensity for giving back to her upbringing, which included a mother who set an example by always looking out for others, and an education that emphasized the importance of community and generosity. Amma attended Ghana International School (GIS) and eagerly got involved in its many outreach initiatives. She spent Friday afternoons volunteering to teach English at public schools that didn’t have the resources to provide for all their students.

“Because I was raised in that environment, I never really even stopped to question (why I wanted to give back),” says Amma. “It became part of my daily routine.”

She came to Canada in 1998 to further her education and “to fulfill my family’s expectations of me.” In her mind, that meant becoming a banker, engineer, doctor or lawyer. “As an immigrant, it’s really etched in your brain that those are the good jobs,” she says. “You study economics, you work for a bank, you have an RRSP, and then you find a husband and give birth. But I always knew I wanted more to life than that. I wanted to follow my passion.”

Amma enrolled as an international student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she studied French (Artsci’02) and Economics (Artsci’03). But she also made time for what energized her most—giving back to others. As Social Issues Commissioner for the Queen’s Alma Mater Society (AMS), Amma undertook many outreach and humanitarian initiatives, both locally and internationally. She organized a cultural pride and anti-hate parade around campus and the city, raising awareness of poverty and diversity issues at Queen’s. “We were pushing the university to really practice the mantra of internationalization and globalization, because they really used to talk about it but it wasn’t reflected on campus,” she says. Amma also founded Operation Read, through which she and the AMS gathered and shipped more than 60,000 books to Ghana, Namibia and Pakistan.

An international education

Amma stayed in Kingston after graduation, working as a Customer Service Representative for RBC. But after a couple years, she felt the need to shake things up. In 2005, she transferred to an RBC branch in Toronto, Ontario, and promptly launched another fabulous initiative. Working with a childhood friend from Ghana, Amma co-founded Foundation for Growth.

The first beneficiary of the project was La-Nkwantanang Primary School in Ghana. Amma was so dedicated to the cause that, when she was unable to raise sufficient funds for the school’s renovations, she dipped into her own line of credit and contributed $1,000 to Foundation for Growth. She also secured enough donations from her RBC colleagues, and from office and stationery supplier Stanford International, to buy school bags and supplies for 100 students at La-Nkwantanang. On January 11, 2007, Amma returned to Ghana and had the joy of witnessing the children discover their new school—painted, plastered and repaired.

That “overwhelming experience” was just one of the reasons she began looking more deeply at what she wanted to do with her life. She’d graduated from university with not one degree but two, had moved to a major Canadian metropolis and was successfully climbing the career ladder at RBC. But she found herself continually asking whether she was truly fulfilling her passion or whether she was doing what her family expected of her as an emigrant.

“As I grasped everything I was supposed to have, I looked inside my hand and found that it was empty,” she says. “I didn’t have the kind of life that I wanted.”

So Amma stepped back and asked herself another question: “If I had no fear in the world, what would I really do with my life?” Looking back at what she’d accomplished, Amma saw two things about which she was most passionate: giving back to others, and hearing and communicating people’s stories.

The Internet offered a wonderful way to pursue those things. In 2009, she created AmmazingSeries.com and was soon profiling people and events throughout Toronto, from the arts, to celebrities, to teen mothers. She loved covering such a range of stories, but still felt the call to do something more. “I wanted to focus in on a niche group, on a story that really deserves to be told,” she says.

Going home again

It wasn’t hard for Amma to identify what group she wanted to focus on. “In my heart, I think there’s no other story that deserves to be told more than the true story of Africa. Not of war, not of famine, not of HIV, but the true story of resilience and beauty that keeps the continent going.”

Amma realized that if she truly wanted to tell Africa’s story, she couldn’t do it from her living room. So, in December 2010, she packed her bags and took three months off work to travel around some of the continent’s most notorious countries—countries “that have captured our attention for the wrong reasons”—and uncover the brighter side of their stories.

Over the course of her three-month journey, Amma found ample evidence to debunk not only the misconceptions that Canadians have about Africa, but the misconceptions that she herself held. “In Canada, we don’t hear the other side of Africa,” she says. “The images that are put on TV screens and in newspapers are so (disturbing) and so graphic that they become etched in our memories…. But we don’t hear the true story of Africa. I didn’t know until I (took this trip) just how brainwashed I had been, as well.”

Amma began her trip in Ghana, where she explored the culture, music and governance of the Ashanti region in an effort to “connect with the fullness of what it means to be part of my ethnic group.”

Celebrations in the Ashanti region

From there, she travelled to Liberia, where she discovered “the reality” of being in a war-torn country. “Liberia went through a very tough, bloody civil war in the 90s, but since then, the country has been moving forward. It’s been slow, it’s floundered, but it’s been moving forward.” Amma found defunct and dilapidated facilities, but she also found a nation of people who are committed to rebuilding their country from the ground up. “They’re people who have survived rape, they’re people who have survived their families being wiped out. But they have put everything aside to rebuild their country, and that is the story we don’t hear of.”

After Liberia, Amma went to South Africa to get a ground-level account of post-apartheid life, and then on to Zimbabwe to uncover life beyond what President Robert Mugabe had brought upon the nation.

Zimbabwe

Next, she went to Uganda, a country she expected to find ravaged by HIV and AIDS. Instead, she found a courageous and optimistic country that had been exposed to a new phenomenon: living positively. Thanks in large part to Reach Out, an HIV outpatient centre supported by the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Ugandans now have free access to testing, counseling and antiretroviral drug treatments that not only prevent but also manage HIV. “Uganda is no longer a country ravaged by AIDS,” says Amma. “It’s a country where people are living positively, supporting their families and contributing to society. I was able to see people who have been empowered not to be disadvantaged because of their status, but to live positively. That really struck me.”

Amma (right) in Uganda with the children of a woman who is living positively

The final stop on Amma’s journey was Rwanda. I’ll let her own words, as told in the Alumni Review article, recount that experience:

“When my family in Ghana and Canada heard I was going (to Rwanda), they begged me not to. They feared for my safety in a country that had been in the headlines after the 1994 mass murder of the minority Tutsis by the Hutu majority. I went anyway. I wanted to learn the truth and to assess how far Rwanda had come since those dark days. I was astounded by what I found. Kigali, the capital city, is organized, efficient and clean. I wish I had the words to fully describe the beauty of the blue skies and green mountains that are the backdrop for the cleanest streets I’ve ever seen. I learned that on the last Saturday of each month, all citizens—including the democratically elected President Paul Kagame—spend hours sweeping the city. This gives you a sense of the level of commitment and togetherness that drive today’s Rwanda. After I visited the church in Ntamara, where hundreds of innocent Tutsis seeking refuge had been burned alive, I wanted to have an honest discussion about the genocide. The Rwandese I met opened up to me. They shared the dark details of their painful past, and they told me about the liberating power of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Amma (right) in Rwanda with a hero of the genocide

Fulfilling dreams, changing lives

Amma has written about her incredible experience in a book, tentatively titled An Immigrant’s Dilemma: Chasing Papers or Chasing Purpose. (She’s currently looking for a publisher; anyone interested should please contact her at amma@ammazingseries.com.) Amma feels that the story, in which she “talks deeply and candidly about my immigrant experience in Canada and about my self-discovery by going back to my motherland,” will resonate with many Canadians—not only to immigrants—because it explores the eternal questions of self-identity and one’s life purpose, as well as the beauty of redemption. Being able to share her discoveries with Canadians in particular is important to Amma, because she feels that this country has offered her the perfect place from which to explore those subjects.

“(In Canada), you meet people from all walks of life,” she says. “It’s the land where you can be yourself. It gives you the opportunity and the resources to be yourself, to be who you were meant to be… Many immigrants flee their home country—some because of religious or political persecution, others for economic reasons—but they come to Canada to be themselves. I think that’s why it’s deeply important to me not to ignore that call. If I am blessed to live here, surrounded by opportunities, resources and people who have my best interests at heart, then I’m doing myself a great disservice by not being myself and pursuing that which fulfills me.

“There’s no reason not to be the fullness, the wholeness, the completeness of what you were born to be. There’s nothing stopping you in this country.”

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For more on Amma, visit ammazingseries.com, email amma@ammazingseries.com, ‘Like’ her Facebook page or follow @Ammazingseries on Twitter.


9 Comments

  1. Eileen Sarkar says:

    Pretty amazing story Amanda. Great way to start my day. Thanks, Eileen.

  2. kickasscanadians says:

    Thank you Eileen! I agree, it’s an amazing story. When Amma told me about what Canada means to her, it brought tears to my eyes. Talk about making the most of every opportunity…

  3. Malaka Grant says:

    Absolutely brilliant! As someone who has known Amma since those GIS days, I am not surprised by all that she has accomplished in such a short span of time. She is an AMMAZING human being and a phenomenal woman!

  4. kickasscanadians says:

    Thank you Malaka! Very happy that Amma’s friends are getting to see this. 🙂

  5. Elsie Dickson says:

    Thanks for writing about a truly ‘ammazing’ individual! I’ve known Amma for about 8 years – full of drive and passion, a wicked sense of humour and a “let’s get this done” attitude! I am excited to see her future exploits! Way to go Amma!!!

  6. kickasscanadians says:

    My pleasure Elsie! Thanks for the comment.

  7. Stella Rambiki Horace says:

    Congratulations Amma. You make all of us pride and I want to particularly thank you for sharing with the world your stories of Africa. Very inspiring. Keep it up.

  8. Catherine Jensen says:

    Truly an inspiration Amanda, thank you for telling Amma’s story!

  9. kickasscanadians says:

    My pleasure, Catherine – thank YOU for always reading 🙂


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